What does it mean to be human? How long can we hold on to the thin veneer of civilization before it gives way to our primeval self? Man Booker long-listed The North Water attempts to answer this and more.
This novel is about a 19th century whaling expedition to the Arctic that goes horribly wrong. It seems doomed from the start – the whaling industry is on the decline, the captain is considered unlucky by his peers and the crew consists of sinister characters with shady, obscure pasts. The key players among those on board are Drax – a brute harpooner who is barbaric (to put it mildly), Sumner – an Irish surgeon with a guilty conscience, and Brownlee – the captain whose previous voyages were grave failures.
The vessel’s owner, Baxter, has given the reins of his ship, The Volunteer, to Brownlee, despite his sketchy past. We soon find out that Baxter has ulterior motives for doing so. The crew is filled with despicable, vile men, common in the whaling trade in those times. Sumner, who has just come back after witnessing the Siege of Delhi and is described as a “Paddy surgeon fresh from the riotous Punjab”, is the only half-decent member of the crew. However, his chequered past is later revealed and we are told that this new job and his secret opium addiction are attempts to escape his former life.
The North Water is a dark, brutal piece of literary fiction with crude language and visceral writing which makes the ruthless whaling business come alive. The stark prose might not be everyone’s cup of tea though and I have to admit that some descriptions were quite off-putting. Everything from the seals being killed to the skinning of bears and the savage way men are killed over the course of the story is depicted in elaborate, explicit detail.
Drax forms the perfect foil to Sumner; he is as remorseless as Sumner is guilt-ridden. Sumner carries the burden of his past sins on his shoulders and attempts to restore justice after Drax, unable to inhibit his brutish nature, ends up killing a crew member. He refuses to own up to the murder and doesn’t show the slightest regret, leading Sumner to wonder that: “Talking to Drax is like shouting into the blackness and expecting the blackness to answer back in kind.”
Storms, shipwreck and starvation, amongst other calamities, unfold, as the focus of the narration shifts from the whole crew to Sumner. Fans of The Revenant will find a lot of parallels between the two plots as both stories deal with the perpetual contest between men and nature. We see men brutally decapitating animals one moment and being utterly at nature’s mercy in the next as the ravages of weather paralyzes their attempts at self-preservation.
The larger than life, graphic imagery bordered on being unpalatable and I certainly felt squeamish reading the darker portions of the book. McGuire contemplates the blurry line between civilization and barbarism. At some instances in the story, the wild beasts seem more capable of empathy to each other than men are to their fellow species. It makes one question the fundamental nature of evil and whether a good man will commit an atrocity when he has to fight for his survival. The themes that The North Water explores are grave and complex but I felt that unnecessary gore prevented the essence of the story to shine through.
The North Water is published in paperback by Scribner UK on 26 January 2017